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Rock & Roll: The Music of ‘Easy Rider’

Rock & Roll: Movie Music
July 24, 1969

In the second scene of the Peter Fonda–Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider there is a cameo part for Phil Spector. The scene takes place at a small airport and involves a silent transaction in which Spector buys an enormous quantity of dope from our two cycling heroes — some white powder that can be sniffed, probably cocaine. Spector, looking freaky as ever in a huge Rolls — one reviewer commented that he looked very gangsterish — ducks every time a plane takes off. Then he tests the merchandise and seems to relax. Apparently, his ears have taken over: the roar of the engines, which has always been present, suddenly seems oppressively loud, filling the theatre and, incredibly, even the screen, dominating the visuals in a Phil Spector apotheosis, an almost literal wall of sound. Spector looks safe as milk. Cut to Fonda and Hopper on their motorcycles, winding away from the scene of their financial triumph as a familiar guitar line comes over the soundtrack. Soon, John Kay of Steppenwolf is singing “The Pusher.”

Fonda and Hopper are rock fans and they are friendly with rock musicians. But neither could be described as a music head — Hopper, who took most of the responsibility for the music, doesn’t even collect records — and that is interesting, because Easy Rider is the only film I know that not only uses rock well — though that is rare enough — but also does justice to its spirit. Clearly, the spirit of rock — and now I am talking about the American variant; that the English usually refer to it as “pop” is significant in this context — is not so much the culmination of a form as of a subculture. It would be difficult if not impossible to understand this subculture without intelligent reference to the music. In fact, Easy Rider is a double rarity — not only does it use rock successfully, it also treats the youth-dropout thing successfully. You can’t have one without the other.

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So few movies use rock correctly because the people that make movies, who are even more avaricious and ignorant than the people who sell records, lust after the extra profits of a soundtrack album, which means commissioning one composer, or group, to do a mostly instrumental score. Rock composers don’t work well on order and aren’t good at background music — when they try (John Sebastian on You’re a Big Boy Now or Harry Nillson on Skidoo!) their results are even more insipid than those of the pros. (Booker T. Jones was able to write a superb score for Uptight! because the M.G.s are not a vocal group — though Booker’s vocal debut in the film was suspicious — and because his experience in the Stax studios prepared him for such an effort.) The results have been somewhat better in theme songs (Roger McGuinn’s “Child of the Universe,” Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson”) but even in that area the same strictures apply; songs-to-order are a drag. Thus far, I know of only two cases in which a rock composer has hired out to do an even passable score. Both were English and both, properly, used at least half a dozen songs and a minimum of la-dee-daa: Mike Hugg (of Manfred Mann) on Up the Junction, and Spencer Davis and Stevie Winwood on Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. The music for Wild in the Streets, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, both music industry pros rather than inspired amateurs, was also pretty good, but the performances (remember Max Frost?) were lousy. (It was better than Privilege, though.)

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Movies can use rock in other ways, of course. There have been a number of good music movies — the Beatle flicks and Monterey Pop (which has a much superior rock and roll predecessor, The TAMI Show, released in 1965 and starring — get ready — the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones; it was shot black-and-white on videotape and has either disappeared or disintegrated; if the former, someone should find it and exhibit it. Some underground film-makers have used rock well without paying for it (no profits, no lawsuit): the Everly Brothers can be heard in the background of Andy Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl, and Warren Sonbert has juxtaposed the naïve formalism of the various girl groups to his own young-jaded formlessness. Antonioni in Blow-Up and Lester in Petulia have misused rock to epitomize some vague aspect of our Decaying Culture, but at least they had the taste to choose good rock (the Yardbirds, Big Brother, the Grateful Dead). But in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, a scrupulously realistic movie which involves considerable driving around the freeways in a Mustang with the radio blaring, the radio station apparently programs directly off an 87-cent dance party record picked up at Rexall.

The reason Bogdanovich couldn’t have real music is that his budget is small and re-use rates tend to be prohibitive. Yet I wonder. Bogdanovich is a hip young guy, not some disciplined brassiere manufacturer, and his movie was honest and interesting. I feel certain he could have screened the movie for enough groups to find a few who were willing to give him a break. On a higher level — he used songs by Steppenwolf, the Band, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and the Electric Flag, and he needed specific songs, not just snatches of background music — that was Hopper’s method, and only the Band soaked him a little (in their warm Woodstock way, of course). He took the trouble because he knew it was worth the trouble. (He didn’t take the trouble with billboards, which also can’t be reproduced without permission, and the film is doubtless worse for it; I am a billboard freak as well as a music freak). He resisted pressure to commission a soundtrack because he understood the profound emotional value of known songs. He knew he could not make his movie honestly without real music.

In many respects, Easy Rider is similar to Nothing But a Man which contracted its music from Motown. Both films are low-budget treatments of oppressed subcultures that rely on music for cohesion and spiritual succor. In both films, the music references are somewhat literary; in Nothing But a Man there is a mock fistfight during Mary Wells’ “You Beat Me to the Punch,” and in Easy Rider“Born to Be Wild” plays as the heroes hit the road. That’s okay even if it is romantic and unsophisticated. The music is romantic and unsophisticated, too, finally, and it would take a convolutionist who would make Warren Sonbert look like Sam Goldwyn to deal with the Byrds in as carefully distanced a way as Sonbert has dealt with the Supremes.

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It’s also okay because the message of the movie — like the message of the music — is itself romantic and unsophisticated. American rock has always had a love-hate thing with technology (its message is so often pastoral, but its medium is intractably electric) and with America itself (the message once again negative and the form positive). Easy Rider, with its central image of two longhairs on gleaming chrome motorcycles, one decorated with stars and stripes, following the road through an otherwise unspoiled American West of buttes and deserts and benevolent patches of green, embodies the same dichotomy with reference to the same subculture. It has the same youth romanticism, too, glorifying the outcasts and detesting and fearing the straights. You could even say that its dark side was anticipated spiritually by all those teen death songs that don’t seem quite so funny after all. Think about it: isn’t Tom Hayden the leader of the pack?

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The Cult

British hard rockers the Cult began life as a swirly, gothy hippie-punk hybrid, playing “whoa, dude!” anthems like the tongue-twister “She Sells Sanctuary.” Then they met barefooted producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin, who turned them into riff-minded hard rockers who weren’t afraid to cover Steppenwolf. The LP they recorded together, Electric, broke the band out of their cult audience and eventually went platinum, thanks to singles like the overly trippy “Love Removal Machine” and “Lil’ Devil.” Tonight, they play every Keith Richards—worshiping riff that album had to offer.

Thu., Aug. 22, 7 p.m., 2013

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Summer Guide: Lisa D’Amour’s Motor City Bayou

If playwright Lisa D’Amour didn’t seem such a sane and affable woman, you’d be tempted to diagnose her with schizophrenia. What other theater artist manages such a maniacally varied career? Even while D’Amour prepares for the fall opening of her first Broadway show, Detroit, she and her longtime collaborator, director Katie Pearl, are readying an enormous art installation, How to Build a Forest, which will premiere at the Kitchen on June 17. She’s also rehearsing a chamber opera, making a piece for a botanical garden, and honing a commission for Chicago’s Steppenwolf, which premiered Detroit last year.

“It sort of dawned on me recently that there aren’t that many people like me,” D’Amour says over brunch at a Williamsburg taqueria. “It can be a little crazy-making. This year, I have the biggest commercial thing I’ve ever had in my life and maybe the biggest project I’ve ever worked on with Katie.”

Detroit, recently named a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, stands as the most conventional play D’Amour has yet produced. A naturalistic drama for five characters, it takes place in the backyards of adjoining suburban houses and concerns two couples in financial free fall. On the surface, it has perilously little in common with her previous plays, deliciously baroque pieces of magical realism such as Red Death and 16 Spells to Charm the Beast. Nor does it resemble her collaborations with Pearl, the last of which, Terrible Things, involved parallel universes and thousands of marshmallows.

D’Amour isn’t sure how she chanced on such a seemingly normal script. “It was one of these plays that kind of came out whole,” she says. But even in Detroit, her delicately cracked sensibilities permeate the familiar. Characters describe fantastical dreams, a barbecue turns dangerously antic, streets have names such as Feather Boulevard and Ultraviolet Lane. “And if you look at the language, it’s super quirky,” she says. “It has its own poetics.”

Though most writers would leap at the chance for fame—not to mention solvency—D’Amour initially resisted a Broadway move. “I don’t identify myself as mainstream Broadway,” she says. “I worried it would feel like clothes that didn’t fit right.” But colleagues at Steppenwolf, including the play’s director, Austin Pendleton, stepped in to “calm me down” and convince her.

She took far less convincing to begin work on How to Build a Forest, a piece inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s effect on her family’s property, called L’Esperance, where, in less than an hour, winds shattered, uprooted, and snapped more than 100 trees. How to Build a Forest serves as a kind of installation-art solace, a way to re-create those lost woods—though out of some very unnatural materials.

Every day, for eight hours, D’Amour, Pearl, New Orleans artist Shawn Hall, and a crew will assemble and then disassemble 100 fabric trees. “They’re mostly plastic,” says D’Amour. “There’s a lot of polyester—and they’re toxic because everything in the theater has to be fireproofed.” Audiences can leave and return at any time—observing passively, carrying out assigned tasks, or taking self-guided tours through the forest and outside to its Chelsea environs.

In fact, environment is the thing that D’Amour believes joins together her highly disparate oeuvre, even environments as dissimilar as Detroit suburb and Louisiana bayou. “When I look to the work,” she says, “the connection is place and landscape—that’s a constant.”

‘How to Build a Forest,’ June 17 to June 26, the Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, thekitchen.org

Summer Theater Picks

The Comic Book Theater Festival

Performances begin June 2

This summer, the Brick Theater offers several strip shows—but not the kind that will irk the vice squad. Yes, the Comic Theater Festival features graphic plays, those drawn from comics and zines. Offerings include Action Philosophers on Stage!, which stars Nietzsche as “the original übermensch”; Batz, an indie theater-–inspired reworking of Batman; The Deep, a dance theater piece spurred by ’70s French adventure comics; and Spaceship Alexandria, which concerns a floating library. The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, bricktheater.com

‘Summerworks’

Performances begin June 5

Constants of summer in the city: sweat, melting asphalt, spurting hydrants, that Mister Softee jingle, and, courtesy of Clubbed Thumb, a slurry of provocative new plays. At this year’s Summerworks, which has moved from the sweltering Ohio to the deliciously air-conditioned Here Arts Center, Tanya Saracho conjures hoodoo and voodoo in Enfrascada; Kristin Newbom and W. David Hancock reveal searing sibling rivalry in Our Lot; and Jason Grote serves a sizzling helping of Civilization (All You Can Eat), which features a giant pig. Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, clubbedthumb.org

Shakespeare in the Park

Performances begin June 6

What’s your problem? Well, Shakespeare in the Park has a couple of them: Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Based on the success of last summer’s season, the Public Theater’s plein-air program will run these problem plays in repertory. The first concerns a duke with designs on a nun, the second a commoner who yearns for a count. The cast for these class acts includes Annie Parisse, Danai Gurira, Andre Holland, and John Cullum. Delacorte Theater, Central Park, shakespeareinthepark.org

‘Second Stage Theatre Uptown’

Performances begin June 7

It’s a family affair at Second Stage Uptown this summer—but don’t bring the kids. In Michael Mitnick’s Sex Lives of Our Parents, about-to-be-married Virginia begins to receive visions of her mother’s erotic past, to say nothing of some very explicit Polaroids. Meanwhile, Anna Kerrigan’s The Talls, set in ’70s Oakland, concerns the exceptionally statuesque Clarke family—even the women are over six feet. Dramatic heights ensue when the eldest daughter develops a yen for her father’s diminutive campaign manager. McGinn-Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, 2st.com

‘Ice Factory’

Performances begin June 22

While the state of Ohio remains securely poised between Indiana and Pennsylvania, the Ohio Theatre has recently relocated from the center of Soho to the far frontier of the West Village. But while Ohio West is being readied, artistic director Robert Lyons will host his annual Ice Factory fest at the downtown multimedia space 3LD. Signing up for this interim season are director Emma Griffin, writer Ruth Margraff, Aztec Economy, Untitled Theater Company #61, and others. 3LD, 80 Greenwich Street, sohothinktank.org

Lincoln Center Festival

Performances begin July 5

Though Lincoln Center stands all the way across town from the United Nations, it aspires to a similarly worldwide feel during its annual summer festival. This year’s participants include Ireland (Druid Theater Company’s production of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie); France (Peter Brook’s version of The Magic Flute); Japan (Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion); and England, whose Royal Shakespeare Company brings five from the bard to the Park Avenue Armory. Various locations, new.lincolncenter.org/live

‘PTP/NYC’

Performances begin July 5

If summer’s sun and fun just don’t thrill you, consider descending deep into the bowels of Atlantic Stage 2 for some gloomier fare. Rape, suicide, murder, insanity—the Potomac Theatre Project has yet to meet a sinister subject it doesn’t adore. This summer’s lineup is no exception—it includes Neal Bell’s homicidal Spatter Pattern (Or, How I Got Away With It); Steve Dykes’s grim Territories; and Howard Barker’s Victory, which stars Jan Maxwell as a widow searching for her husband’s body. Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, PotomacTheatreProject.org

The Fringe Festival

Performances begin August 12

New York is no stranger to fringe groups—anarchists, extremists, sects, cults, freegans, the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. But the New York International Fringe Festival, in its 15th year, now seems a very regular endeavor, consistently providing space and support for some 200 dance and theater shows. This year, local artists perform alongside productions from Sydney, Bucharest, and Tel Aviv. So join 75,000 other audience members as they dip into this regular celebration of the theatrical periphery. Various locations, fringenyc.org